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They're all atwitter in Compton

When a bird wanders off course, the Internet starts chirping. The next thing you know, Sue Horton reports, a supposedly genteel breed bristles with competitive bloodlust.

November 04, 2003|Sue Horton

It was Dick Barth who first saw the bird, in Compton, on a trash-strewn stretch of the concrete-sided Los Angeles River. It flew into view at about 8:30 on the morning of Sept. 10 and stayed only a minute or two. But it was long enough for Barth, a West Hollywood retiree and avid birder, to realize that this small perching bird, or passerine, didn't belong in Compton. Or California. Or North America.

The bird was a black-backed wagtail, 7 1/2 inches or so, with markings of brown, gray, white and black. The species is native to Asia, so only if a bird gets horribly off course during migration -- while it's trying to get, say, from breeding grounds in Siberia down to Taiwan for the winter -- does it end up on this continent.

Because it was so unusual, Barth's sighting got attention. Two people alerted by him saw the bird that afternoon, and Kimball Garrett, director of ornithology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, quickly put up an advisory on an Internet list for local birders: "It would be worthwhile to cover much of the L.A. River channel from above Rosecrans to south of Alondra," his posting concluded. But despite dozens of birders who scoured the river in the days that followed, the bird wasn't seen.

Things would have ended there, as rarity sightings often do, with a couple of people happy to have been in the right place at the right time for a one-day wonder. But then, on Sept. 23, remarkably, Barth saw the bird again, this time a mile farther south. It looked a bit different now, more black on the breast, but, as Barth noted in his Internet posting, "that might be explained by 13 days of molt time.... No way we could have two Wagtails in the river this fall, and so close together."

Then the frenzy began. At times, over the 10 days that followed, birders outnumbered the wagtail 12 to 1. Along the river, $1,500 telescopes were lined up, waiting, as people who'd made the pilgrimage to Compton scanned the channel with state-of-the-art binoculars trying, often in vain, to spot the bird. One afternoon a puzzled man in the Home Depot parking lot near the river gestured toward the telescopes on the bank. "Why are all these people here?" he asked. When told of the wagtail, he seemed even more mystified. "Just one bird? All these people are here to see a bird?"

Why did a single and often elusive wagtail cause such a stir? Because birders are intensely competitive. Anyone can see a bird in its normal habitat. But when a vagrant is discovered far off course, a birder's juices start flowing.

Through most of the 19th century, bird-watching was a predominantly male pastime. A day of birding also was a day of shooting, because identifying a bird in the era before binoculars and spotting scopes required a shotgun. Then, in the 1890s, two things happened: Optics got better and women got involved. The women were outraged at the rapid decline of many species -- in part because their feathers were prized by hat makers -- and so defined a new kind of bird-watching that was about looking at birds and educating people about them. They were enormously successful, which is why, when you think of bird-watching, you probably think of someone like your grandmother.

Today, men have rejoined the sport, and it is once again an intensely competitive undertaking (though without the firearms). The gear carried by a serious birder can cost thousands of dollars, and that's before the travel -- the trips to bird-rich places such as Peru and Siberia and the Alaskan island of Attu. Devoted birders, almost to a person, love nature and being outdoors and studying every aspect of a bird's life history. But they also love their lists. In bird-watching's original incarnation, a birder cared about only one list: the life list that cataloged every bird he or she had seen. For today's birders, that's just the beginning. They keep all kinds of lists, tracking birds seen in particular states or in the American Birding Assn.'s "listing area," which encompasses the continental United States and Canada. They keep lists by country, by year -- sometimes even by day. (Three Los Angeles birders doing a "big day" several weeks ago logged 172 species, starting before dawn with a great-horned owl.) The most serious listers are intensely aware of who's got how many birds on which list.

All of which brings us back to Barth's wagtail sighting. In the last several decades, only 11 black-backed wagtails have been recorded officially in California. So having one on your California list -- or even your North American list -- is a big deal. When one arrives, especially if it's cooperative about staying around, as the Compton bird eventually was, the faithful flock to see it.

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